From the valleys of dusty deserts to the damp, cold and cobbled streets of Victorian London, the December holidays are rooted in tradition. Although many folks tie their holiday to a specific religious event, others have used that event to interpret and construct stories that speak in more immediate and tangible ways. Then those stories become part of the tradition. Two of those tales are being presented by theaters this season.
First, A Tucson Pastorela, which Borderlands Theater has presented for years, is back for its 2016 version. The piece is topical and satiric and although it's a traditional story of devils and temptations and shepherds and angels, this year the tale draws heavily from the mountains of material provided by the presidential election. It also gives starring roles to Big Pharma, Hamilton and Game of Thrones.
This is the third year that Milta Ortiz of Borderlands has scripted the piece, which gets updated every year, and each year it also incorporates the input of "Ghost Writers" never identified.
She says the show always follows a formula, and although each year new material is used to make the tale contemporary, the new material must bend to what's at the heart of the tale. And adding to the writer's challenge—and to the humor so important to the audience—is that it's written in rhyming couplets.
Her first Pastorela effort was written in 2013, "when I first landed here. I didn't quite understand what the Pastorela was. I'm Salvadorian and this is not a tradition for Salvadorians. So, it was all brand new and I didn't fully understand what it was."
There was no Pastorela production in 2014 due to funding issues, but of 2015's version, she says she felt like she'd "got it."
And this year?
"Oh, I'm still learning," she says. And to complicate things, she had written a large portion of the script assuming Hillary Clinton would win the election, which, of course, was the prediction. But that didn't happen, so there was quite a bit of revision necessary.
"The theme was The Year of the Woman, and although that's still the theme, I had to do some major adjustments." There are still plenty of pantsuits on display.
One of the seven deadly sins appears in each edition of the story. This time it's Wrath, which, Ortiz explains, often results when women do have power. She says she feels there's a new energy in the show this year, supplied by an almost all female cast and a new director, Katherine Monberg. And as always, there is music and child actors as Dog and Sheep.
Oh, and after the play, there is a pinata bashing. It's an intergenerational event, says Ortiz. The script provides plenty of "winks to the audience," but there are also references to movies that are popular with kids. There's something for everybody.
Ortiz says the thing that really hooks folks is that the story is actually the archetypal "hero's journey, even if folks don't recognize it on a conscious level." And it's a story of hope, because the story is about the birth of Jesus. "It's really a celebration of rebirth," Ortiz says.
On the other side of town, at the new space housing the Roadrunner Theatre Company, another traditional tale can be seen, this one originating in merry ol' England. It's easily one of the most well-known and best-loved of holiday stories, and it was penned by a writer named Charles Dickens. Yes, it's the story of the grumpy and parsimonious Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.
This version was adapted by long-time Tucson theater artist Nick Seivert. He penned it for the now defunct Great American Playhouse in Oro Valley for their inaugural 2013 season.
"I've had time to think about it, so I've made a few changes that I think make it a lot better," Seivert says. "It's still the story we know so well, but it also includes great songs and music." Some current cast members were also in the Oro Valley production.
This production will feature James R. Gooden as the bah-humbug dude himself. Seivert says he and Gooden have worked together too many times to count in the 30-plus years since they met at the U of A. "We just had an instant rapport," Seivert says, who also worked with Gooden at the Gaslight Theatre for many years.
Seivert's production company, Standing O Productions, is the entity behind the current production. "We're renting the space from Roadrunner, along with some of their technical and box office personnel." But really Seivert himself is the driving force of this venture, being writer, producer, director and actor, playing Marley's ghost.
Seivert says the popularity of Scrooge's story lies in its promise that we can start over. "It's a comedy of redemption. Can a person really change the course of his life?" Yes, Dickens says, and at the heart of that change is a genuine care for the less fortunate. The story especially resonates with the tone of the season, Seivert says, when "we turn our attention to the less fortunate, and know that should be our concern every day."
Seivert doesn't have specific plans at this point for his next project, but he is still writing and hopes that "my stuff gets in front of an audience at some point."
We journey. We stumble. We hope. We are redeemed. This is the ground in which so many of our holiday traditions have taken root. And if we keep this in mind in the midst of the madness that also seems to have become a tradition, maybe this is the most wonderful time of the year.